Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 31
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2021 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
*Since this is coming out before the April 25th Oscars, the winners are obviously pending - but scroll down for our Oscar predictions!
PART 31: 2021
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
Judas and the Black Messiah
The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Trial of the Chicago 7, which came out on Netflix right before the 2021 election, has the benefit of good timing. The film recounts the story of the “Chicago Seven”, a group of anti-Vietnam War activists who were accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
The group was collectively called the “New Left”, made up of hippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, co-founders of the Youth International Party; David Dellinger and Rennie Davis, members of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam; Tom Hayden, co-founder of the Students for a Democratic Society; and John Froines and Lee Weiner, who were part of the anti-war demonstration.
Then there’s Bobby Seale, the national chairman of the Black Panthers, who came to Chicago to give a speech, then left a few hours later. He was not really part of the Chicago 7, but the prosecutors attached him to the case because they thought a Black Panther would “scare the jury”.
Collectively, Abbie, Jerry, David, Rennie, Tom, John, Lee and Bobby were put on trial for show, an act laid out by the Republican government as retribution against those citizens it deemed ‘unruly’. This film is their story.
With the deaths of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, as well as the rampant protests going on across the country, 1968 was a year of ‘civil unrest’. This certainly gives Chicago 7 a timely feel, given this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, as well as the storming of the capitol building. The near constant chant of the phrase “The whole world is watching!” also adds to this film’s significance.
However, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is also an Aaron Sorkin movie, which means the film is filled with…Sorkinisms…such as unrealistic dialog, super-fast pacing and a cast that’s as white and masculine as ever. Fluffy language and grammar jokes abound, with a pivotal moment even hinging on one character’s grammatical critique of another’s quote. Every character knows exactly what to say in every situation – nothing about this film, which features students, hippies and drugged-out comedians, feels organic.
As the film begins, Sorkin wastes no time throwing us into the chaos of 1968. Almost immediately we meet Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), who are encouraging a peaceful protest with an emphasis on the loss of lives due to the Vietnam War. Hippies Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) believe the system can only be dismantled when it’s disrupted first. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is a family man who is convinced nothing violent will happen in Chicago and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Meteen II) of the Black Panthers is convinced he will be in and out of the Windy City in no time.
After meeting our main players, Sorkin skips right over all the protests and we land in the courtroom of Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman), who is tasking Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with his career-making case – trying this group of 8 hooligans with conspiracy to incite riots across state lines. He wants to “…bring back manners…The America I grew up in.” Make America Polite Again.
Schultz doesn’t approve of the actions of the so-called “Dream Team”, but he also doesn’t think they have a case. There’s no proof as to who actually started these riots, the protestors or the police. But Mitchell replies, “The police don’t start riots.” Hahaha, ok.
But, onward we go to court. As the trial progresses, the film continues to congratulate itself for being on the right side of history – but it’s not really given any room to breathe. Sorkin is clearly overprotective of this script, which he spent more than 10 years developing. But the speeches are too polished, the characters are too clean. Sure, these hippies and student leaders sound smart and well-educated, but should they?
The trial is also filled with infuriating moments designed to get under the skin, including a key testimony from US Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), which the jury is forbidden to hear; the very partisan opinions of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who teeters the line between incompetency and evilness; and the infamous decision by Hoffman to have Bobby bound and gagged to prevent him from speaking on his own defense.
When all's said and done, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is really about the soul of America – the right to protest, the right to speak freely, as laid out by our first amendment. It has very definite opinions about protesting, yet remains very obviously passive about the brutality of law enforcement. Considering the many steps the film took to connect these protests to 2020’s BLM movement, the fact that the police were still given a bit of a free pass here honestly rubbed me the wrong way.
And still, the questions that brought about the 1968 trial still remain far from resolved more than 50 years later. If protesting can be prosecuted by the federal court, why do groups like the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers even exist? What exactly constitutes “free speech”? And at what point does a protest against police violence turn into a police riot?
Promising Young Woman: Cassie (Carey Mulligan) has an interesting hobby. By day, she’s a coffee shop barista with a candy-coated wardrobe and a bad attitude. By night, she trades in her teenage dream ensemble for glitter, gloss and skimpy clothes. This is her hunting gear.
Once a week, Cassie prowls the bars and nightclubs for weak prey. She pretends to be drunk, helpless, vulnerable, just waiting for some man to come “help” her. The first time we see her in action, she harpoons a seemingly ‘nice guy’ into giving her a ride back home – well, to his home. He proceeds to offer her more to drink before getting her into bed and slipping off her panties. It’s at this moment Cassie strikes to kill. She suddenly turns out to be the sober deliverer of a message he will never forget.
The next time we see Cassie, she has her heels in one hand and a burger in the other. Her hair is a mess, ketchup drips down her arm like blood and she has a ball-busting steeliness in her eyes. Though we never see what happened in that bedroom, we know something happened…and you know she’s the one who scored.
It takes some time to get there, but we finally come to learn that Cassie’s bait-and-switch pursuit has to do with her best friend, Nina, who was not just a victim of sexual assault, but a system that protected the criminal over the accuser. Cassie is trying to dismantle the system one shitty guy at a time.
But things get complicated when Cassie stumbles into Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate from her med school days. Now a pediatric surgeon, he has harbored an unrequited crush on Cassie for years and it seems the stars have finally aligned for romance. Ever so slowly, he cracks through Cassie’s tough candy shell, revealing a softer, sweeter person inside. Maybe, FINALLY, she’s actually found a ‘nice guy’.
It’s not until Ryan casually drops a name – Alexander Monroe – that a switch flips in Cassie. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but let’s just say it’s all the motivation Cassie needs to finally go after the men, and women, who helped destroy her best friend.
Tonally, Promising Young Woman is all over the place. It’s a dark, comedic revenge thriller, a rom-com, and a creative take on the ‘Me Too’ movement. In a way it works, since trauma often causes extreme mood swings and emotional decision-making…and Cassie is all too willing to take out her aggression on the patriarchal system that destroyed her best friend.
But it’s also a film about a woman searching for the catharsis she’ll simply never find. Cassie is, essentially, an addict – and to watch her character spiral out of control isn’t the tension release we need – it’s actually quite sad. Cassie has spent years clinging to her trauma in the wake of Nina’s supposed suicide (we never really know for sure what happened to her), having dropped out of med school and, metaphorically speaking, life itself. She’s a 30-something who still lives at home with her parents, doesn’t have any friends, and works a minimum wage job. Even Nina’s mother urges Cassie to move on and stop living with regret. There comes a point where we have to wonder – would Nina have wanted this life for her bestie? Most likely not. In fact, most viewers would probably appreciate seeing Cassie finally seek help to address her illness rather than continuing her path towards self-destruction.
The final act of Promising Young Woman is bound to divide audiences. There’s a lot of dark humor in it (director Emerald Fennell also directed Killing Eve, so if you like that show, you’ll probably get a kick out of this film), but it takes a big chance with the ending. Some will love it, some will hate it…but few will be indifferent about it. I’ll just leave it at that.
Besides Best Picture, Promising Young Woman is also up for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Mulligan) and Best Film Editing. There’s stiff competition in all these categories, so we’ll have to see if this candy-coated revenge thriller has enough oomph to pull through.
Like Joker, Promising Young Woman is a tragedy masquerading as a comedy…a movie where the itch for justice can only be scratched with a twisted knife.
Minari: Though Minari is very much a movie about “the immigrant experience”, it’s also a very real film about the human experience of trying to adjust to a new environment.
The movie – which is semi-autobiographical – reflects the director’s own experience with growing up on a farm in rural Arkansas. The themes of loneliness and isolation, pride and duty, and just trying to be a kid in a world that doesn’t understand you, make this movie relatable – if not universal.
Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), came to California from Korea in the 1980s and made a living sexing chickens. Now, with two American-born children – Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim) – the Yi family is heading east to Arkansas, hoping to start their own 50-acre farm.
As the only Asian family in this rural part of Arkansas, the Yi family have some hurdles to climb. Obviously assimilation is a common theme, but it’s not the only one. Jacob and Monica fight over their goals as a couple, as well as what they want for their children. The language barrier makes it hard for Monica to make friends, and Anne and David struggle with their desire to have an “American childhood” under the roof of a family very much stuck in the ways of the old world.
For Jacob, this new life in America’s Bible Belt is the perfect opportunity to try out a new identity as a stereotypical American farmer, complete with a trucker cap, a breast pocket cigarette pack, and a collection of tight, white tees. He’s prepared to take big risks to be his own boss, even if that means losing everything in the process. Quintessential American.
Monica doesn’t find it so easy to fit in and struggles to make friends with the southern women who can’t help but comment on how “cute” she is.
As for the kids, they experience some subtle racism, but it’s nothing they can’t brush off. Kids are resilient. What’s said is forgiven and both Anne and David befriend the kids who just 2 seconds ago were casually making fun of them. It’s like everyone in this film is still learning the right way to behave.
Things get a little more exciting when Monica’s mother Soonja (Youn Yuh Jung) comes to live with the Yi’s. Acting as a caretaker for the kids while Monica and Jacob are at work, Soonja is a character in every sense of the word. As viewers, we instantly love her. David, on the other hand, isn’t so sure. She’s not a “real” grandma – aka an “American” grandma. She doesn’t cook, she doesn’t make cookies, she dresses in weird clothes and “…smells like Korea”. She watches wrestling on TV, plays cards and swears like a sailor. Soonja tries to win David over, but can’t seem to break him. It’s not until a truce is made – the specifics of which will not be spoiled here – that the two form a loving and trusting bond.
Though they’re decades apart, Soonja and David are cut from the same cloth. Both childish and wise, eccentric and brass, this grandmother-grandson bond becomes the heartbeat of Minari, fueled with old-school wisdom and bottles of Mountain Dew.
Like many films about the immigrant experience, Minari is further proof that those who have the most invested in America are often those who have come from elsewhere – and often at great personal cost. Though it’s in Korean, this is not a “foreign” film, nor is it “international”. It’s very simply about a place called home.
Sound of Metal: When it comes to immersive storytelling, what we hear is just as important as what we see. Consider watching films like The Exorcist without sound – probably not so scary, right?
Even movies that drown us in an auditory experience are commanding in their storytelling. A large battle scene in any war movie is often followed by strategic silence – accompanied by an effect that simulates ringing of the ears. This silence is unsettling and disorienting, however brief it may be.
In Sound of Metal, director Darius Marder doesn’t just allow for these moments of silence, he thrives in them. As a heavy metal drummer who is losing his hearing, Riz Ahmed gives a performance that resonates in the quiet – speaking to the part in all of us that fears losing who we are.
Ruben (Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) are the two members of the heavy metal rock band, Black Gammon. When they’re not screaming in microphones and smashing guitars, they’re cuddling up in their cozy RV, listening to jazz music and drinking smoothies.
One day, Ruben’s hearing suddenly and abruptly disappears. A doctor informs him that he’s lost 80 to 90% of his hearing, and the rest will soon follow. Convinced he can “fix” himself, Ruben ignores the doctor’s warnings to stop drumming. After all, he can get cochlear implants…it’s expensive, but it’s doable. The show must go on.
For Ruben, his hearing loss is nothing but a bump in the road. As a recovering heroin addict, the thrill of the needle has been replaced with the thrill of performing – and nothing will stop him from taking the stage. He’s reluctant to accept his new reality, even when we (and Lou) know his attempts to resist it can only worsen his situation.
Worried that he might have a relapse, Lou takes Ruben to a deaf community run by Vietnam vet Joe (Paul Raci), who lost his hearing in the war. This is where the heart of the film takes place. Joe’s community is more of a rehabilitation facility – teaching deaf people how to live with their new reality, rather than change it. It’s a place that enables people to embrace their newfound stillness, curing them of the hope that their deafness will one day be “fixed”.
For the majority of his time there, Ruben is an observer, watching deaf kids learn in a classroom or watching his peers sign at the dinner table. In many ways, Sound of Metal is a story about a restless soul forced to find inner calm and peace.
Unsurprisingly, sound itself is a main character here, too. Mauder does an exceptional job of putting us in Ruben’s shoes – hearing and, more importantly, not hearing – everything the character does. We don’t have to guess what Ruben is going through because we go through it, too. It’s frustrating and unsettling in the best way, and made me appreciate this film all the more.
One of the best features of Sound of Metal is its refusal to indulge in those triumph-of-the-human-spirit clichés that cloud disability stories. Ruben’s hearing loss is sudden and shocking and Ahmed’s performance doesn’t shy away from the terror and self-pity a musician might feel if he’s suddenly robbed of his ability to perform. It’s the kind of acting that shows more in silence than in speech. When Ruben is asked how he’s feeling after arriving at Joe’s facility, he simply claims, “Today’s not a good day.” It’s a simple phrase that resonates with anyone who has ever had an internal struggle of any kind. That’s what makes this movie so heartbreaking.
Sound of Metal is a story about loss, but it’s also one about the potential to gain. It’s about finding inner peace and accepting those things we cannot change. It’s a story about what it means to march to the beat of a different drum when the familiar music fades to silence.
Mank: “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours,” proclaims Herman J. Mankiewicz, “you can only hope to leave the impression of one.”
When Mankiewicz says this line in Mank, he’s referring to the complex approach of writing what’s arguably considered the best movie of all time, Citizen Kane. However, I think the same message can be applied to director David Fincher’s biopic about the man who changed Hollywood forever.
This messy ode to old Hollywood, which follows screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he struggles with the screenplay for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, is about writing…or, it wants to be. Hidden under the booze and brawl of this old Hollywood film is the story of a man who wrote a narrative opus, only to have the credit stolen from him by the director, producer, star, and credited co-writer. But this plotline is downplayed so much that it’s barely even mentioned in Mank. No, Mank is not about writing Citizen Kane, much to the film’s detriment. Instead, it’s about why the film was written, briefly touching on a few key moments that helped Mank craft his storyline…and really, it doesn’t do a great job of that, either.
Given just 60 days to write Citizen Kane, Mank is less than thrilled with director Orson Welles. Still in recovery from a car crash, the alcoholic screenwriter decides to take residence on the North Verde Ranch in Victorville, California, where his secretary and nurse assist and care for him as he works.
Similar to Kane, Mank is nonlinear, jumping back in time to 1930s Hollywood. It’s through these flashbacks that we meet those who would come to inspire Mank in his storytelling, including Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), who’s believed to be the very inspiration for Kane himself.
Not only do these tycoons run Hollywood, they also run the state. The politics of moviemaking and the politics of politics intertwine as Mank comes to learn how influential film and moving pictures are when it comes to controlling the masses.
Filmed in black and white and displaying many of those classic tropes of old Hollywood pictures – including fade-outs and reel-change cigarette burns – Mank seems to get caught up in the technicality of it all. This is clearly a film for film lovers, throwing in a bunch of names us old Hollywood fans will recognize immediately, but it tends to forget the story at times. Confusing time-jumps and an overstuffed script make it difficult to follow, while an obvious lack of focus of Hearst seems to create a large hole in this film where the story should have been.
In terms of Oscars, Mank leads the charge with 10 nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Oldman), Best Supporting Actress (Seyfried), Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design and Best Makeup and Hairstyling...probably just a handful of which it has an actual chance in hell of winning.
As Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, is walking Mank down the hallowed halls of MGM, he explains his creative vision: “What makes me cry? Emotion. Where do I feel emotion? Here [brain], here [heart], and here [groin].” It’s one of the best shots in the film, not only because of the track work, but because it pinpoints exactly why Mank doesn’t work: there’s no emotion. Covered in glittery costumes and gaudy makeup, Mank says more about the era than it does about the man…and what results is a semi-cold film that just reminds us how fake Hollywood really is.
Nomadland: “If you want to get more out of life,” said vagabond Christopher McCandless, “you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life, you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.”
For McCandless, helter-skelter life meant dying in the Alaskan wilderness at just 24 years old, but there are many others who thrive on this philosophy – and do it successfully. In Nomadland, director Chloe Zhao tells one such story.
Set on the open roads of America’s west coast, Nomadland is a romantic portrayal of a woman who refuses to be a victim to a broken system. This film does not glorify poverty or gloss over the fact that “The American Dream” leaves behind more people than it inspires – rather it shows that our common humanity is not dictated by our wealth but by our resilience. It’s about what happens after you lose everything you thought you needed, only to discover all you really need is the courage of your conviction…and a wide, open road.
Fern (Frances McDormand) is grieving a life that has been ripped away from her. When the gypsum plant in her hometown of Empire, Nevada, closed, the town literally closed with it. She lost her job, her home, her husband, even her zip code. Without a thing to her name, Fern hits the open road looking for seasonal work, taking up residence in the back of her van.
Life on the road is tough, but not impossible. Fern eventually gets involved with a group of modern nomads who show her how to enjoy the freedom of a life lived in mobility.
Most of the folks that Fern meets along the way are non-actors, people who actually live this life on the road. There is a very natural, improvised feel to this film that grounds it in reality. These people tell real stories of not wanting to die with their dreams of traveling unfilled. They share tips on how to live safely and how to maintain their vehicles. They find work together, celebrate together, cry together. It’s a beautiful film to experience, giving us a real empathetic look at those folks who have chosen to find a new way of life away from what society dictates.
That being said, there is a certain sadness to Nomadland, too. No, not sadness – honesty. It’s a film that genuinely understands loss – be it material, emotional or spiritual. It suggests that the road less traveled can often yield joy as well as sorrow, solitude as well as community. The great American landscape can be beautiful and dirty; welcoming and cold; peaceful and intimidating all at once.
Of course, this film would be impossible with anyone other than Frances McDormand in the driver’s seat. Plain, relatable, and stunningly complex, Fern is a restless woman who somehow makes friends with almost everyone she meets. She’s so incredibly resilient, yet has such tender moments of sadness that you just want to reach out and hug her. It’s an incredible performance, certainly one of the best of her career, and proves what a truly versatile and amazing actress she is.
Throughout Nomadland, Fern’s use of the word ‘home’ is interesting. When someone offers her a place to stay for the night, she replies, “I’m not homeless; I’m just houseless.” Without romancing her way of life, Nomadland makes it clear that not everyone hits the open road due to poverty or financial desperation…some people are just restless and tired of ordinary life. Maybe they long to find beauty in simplicity – the smile of a friend, a cold dip in a river, a kind gesture of a stranger.
When the film is over, it’s not because something monumental has happened, but because we’ve just come to a good stopping point. But, like most road trips, this film isn’t about the destination – it’s about the journey.
Judas and the Black Messiah: When it comes to portraying the history of the Black Panther Party, Hollywood has been, shall we say, timid. Unless they’re fighting crime in a Marvel movie or keeping a watchful eye on a scantily clad man-cub, Black Panthers have remained hidden behind the simpler, more reassuring stories about racial justice in America.
This is the main reason Judas and the Black Messiah feels like such a cinematic breakthrough. In today’s day and age, the name Fred Hampton should be just as recognizable as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X…yet most people don't know his name. This film is a good stepping stone, a solemn reminder that what should feel dated and antiquated is more timeless now than ever.
As you might expect from the title, Judas is built on contrasts. The Panthers vs. the FBI, the performance of belief and the action of believing, a man who’s in it for the movement and man who’s in it for himself. It focuses on the last year or so in the life of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the chairman of the Panthers’ Illinois chapter. As a motivator and speaker, Hampton was electrifying – especially for someone just 21 years old.
It’s because of Hampton’s power that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) marks him as a dangerous threat – a potential ‘Black Messiah’ who will encourage violence and empower other left-leaning political groups. And so, the FBI waves the jailtime promised to a young petty crook named William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) in exchange for infiltrating the Black Panthers and helping to bring Hampton down.
Thus, O’Neal is our Judas and the film begins to unfold mostly from his perspective. As he works closely with his FBI agent (a very good Jesse Plemons), he realizes how influential the Panthers are in their community. Not only are they fighting for Black rights, they offer free medical clinics to those who need it and offer breakfast programs for young kids. The more O’Neal learns about the Panthers, the more conflicted he feels about his mission.
However, the film doesn’t shy away from the Panthers’ militancy, either. They march the streets carrying firearms. They’re capable of merciless violence and engage in open shootouts with the police. But Hampton knows there's power in numbers. He works to unite not just the Black groups but also the Young Patriots (Southern white leftists) and the Young Lords (Puerto Ricans). Deemed the Rainbow Coalition, Hampton encourages his followers to strategize and redirect their anger towards breaking down the system that caused all this injustice in the first place.
Though Judas focuses mainly on Hampton, this is not a biopic. It does not trace his life from beginning to end, nor does it chronicle the history of the Black Panther Party. Rather it introduces us to various facets of Hampton. We get the public Fred, filled with passion and drive. We get the confrontational Fred, the confident Fred, the romantic – even shy – Fred as he explores intimacy with one of his followers. But, despite the title, we never really explore the relationship between said Judas and said Black Messiah. Though these two men are comrades, it would be a stretch to call them friends. There’s not a single scene where Hampton and O'Neal share an emotional moment beyond fighting for the same cause. Ironically, it’s a smart move – not making O’Neal sympathetic, but someone who’s ultimately in it for his own survival.
Though Judas does paint a semi-accurate portrayal of Hampton and O’Neal, it is by no means historical fact. According to the real O’Neal’s uncle, O’Neal heard someone else being tortured in collaboration with the FBI as he, himself, was being urged to become an informant. Not to mention O’Neal was only 17 years old when he was recruited, not the 30+ he’s portrayed as on screen. Hampton wasn’t much older, only 22 when he was murdered by the FBI while sleeping in his bed – no spoiler, just history. These facts are integral history, and I’d argue if they cast young teens and 20-somethings in these roles rather than 30 or 40-somethings, the impact of Judas would have been even stronger.
On December 4, 1969, the FBI stormed Hampton’s home, firing almost 100 rounds upon a room of sleeping revolutionaries. Hampton, who was asleep in bed, was shot 4 times, twice in the head. His friend Mark Clark, was also murdered that night. Several others were seriously injured, including Hampton’s pregnant girlfriend, Deborah Johnson.
O’Neal continued to work as an informant for the FBI for several years after the Hampton murder. He was banished to California and placed in witness protection after his role in the murder plot was revealed in 1973 (he helped the FBI track down Hampton by drawing out a blueprint of his apartment before the raid). He made his last public appearance in 1990, in an interview for Eyes on the Prize 2. In that interview, he claimed he made his choices and was able to live with them – and that history would have its say about his role in the murders.
The night Eyes on the Prize 2 was scheduled to premiere, January 15, O’Neal committed suicide. He was 40 years old. Though his betrayal takes center stage in Judas and the Black Messiah, there’s more than one rat on the streets of Chicago…and there’s more than one Judas in this story.
What will history have to say about Hampton and the Black Panthers? I guess time will tell. But if Judas and the Black Messiah proves anything, it's the simple fact that killing a revolutionary doesn't kill a revolution. There's power in action. There's power in words. And, by God, there's power in the people.
The Father: The Father is a different kind of horror film. There’s no killer here, no evil cult or monster under the bed. No, The Father deals with the very real fear of living with dementia – and it will haunt me for weeks.
Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is an 80-year-old man living quite comfortably in his London flat, thank you very much. He has had a parade of caretakers, but they’ve all been sent packing because of Anthony’s fits of temper. He’s perfectly fine living on his own, he says. His daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman) doesn’t quite agree.
Anthony has a habit of misplacing things, particularly his beloved watch that keeps mysteriously vanishing from his wrist. Anne knows the time has come to transfer her father to a nursing home, especially with her upcoming move to Paris, but Anthony is nothing if not stubborn. He will not leave his flat.
Suddenly, a man appears in the apartment, claiming to be Anne’s husband. This is odd to Anthony, since she just told him she was moving to Paris to live with her boyfriend. Moments later, when Anne returns from her shopping trip, she’s not played by Olivia Colman, but by another actress, Olivia Williams. Even the apartment begins to shift. Wasn’t there a lamp there a moment ago? Wasn’t the kitchen backsplash yellow instead of teal? And what happened to that huge painting that was on the wall?
This is the cruelty of this film…and the honesty of it. Just when we think we’re getting into the rhythm of The Father, it changes tempo, setting, and players. Maybe this isn’t actually Anthony’s flat…and maybe Anne is actually married…was Anne’s hair short or long…and why hasn’t Anne’s sister Lucy called?
Unlike most other films about dementia and memory loss, writer/director Florian Zeller tells this story from Anthony’s perspective. We experience his confusion as if it were our own. At this point in his long career, it would be easy to think that Hopkins would have exhausted his ability to surprise us with something new, but his work here is nothing short of astonishing. He shows us a man whose mind has become a prison, and we’re trapped in it right alongside him. It’s heartbreaking work, watching him try to explain to himself, and those around him, what he’s experiencing.
Yet this is not a story that emotionally manipulates the viewer. Zeller makes no excuse for Anthony’s rash behavior. In some scenes, he’s charming and fun, close to how I would imagine Hopkins would be in real life. But in others, he’s cruel and malicious, spitting hurtful words at Anne and his caretakers. In yet another brilliant Oscar-nominated performance, Hopkins conveys devastating loss, befuddlement and the true terror that accompanies his fading grip on reality.
While this is certainly Hopkins’ show, Colman also does a wonderful job as his caretaker, the one trying to settle his volatile temper and organize his jumbled memories. Anyone who has had to care for someone with dementia will recognize themselves in Anne…how she can manage a smile as tears well in her eyes when her father says something rude or insulting…how she must balance taking care of her sick father with the demands of her marriage.
The Father is not a film that’s easy to recommend, or perhaps even possible to love. In fact, it might rest comfortably on that shelf of films I don’t need to see again. But in a way I’m glad I did see it. It exists for no reason other than to tell an incredibly human story in a recognizable way…and it does so in a way that only good art can…with great respect, care and understanding.
Since this review comes out before the Oscars ceremony on April 25th, we're offering our Oscar picks here, as well as our dark horse choices!
Actor in a Leading Role - Steven Yeun, Minari
Dark Horse Winner - Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Actor in a Supporting Role - LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah
Dark Horse Winner - Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Actress in a Leading Role - Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Dark Horse Winner - Viola Davis, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Actress in a Supporting Role - Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
Dark Horse Winner - Olivia Colman, The Father
Cinematography - Mank
Dark Horse Winner - Nomadland
Directing - Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Dark Horse Winner - Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
Film Editing - The Father
Dark Horse Winner - The Trial of the Chicago 7
Production Design - Mank
Dark Horse Winner - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Sound - Sound of Metal
Dark Horse Winner - None, Sound of Metal needs to win this!
Best Adapted Screenplay - Nomadland
Dark Horse Winner - The Father
Best Original Screenplay - Minari
Dark Horse Winner - Sound of Metal
Best Picture - Nomadland
Dark Horse Winner - Judas and the Black Messiah
For what it's worth, Sound of Metal was our favorite film this year and certainly worth checking out!
Onto the next pull!